In October of last year, I travelled to India for a study tour with my class from Georgetown Business School. This was the culmination of a semester-long study on designing our own renewable energy system, which you can read about here if you’re interested.
On the day we left, I found myself on a flight to Mumbai, where I would be staying for the next couple of days before continuing on to Bali. As we were landing, I looked out the window and saw a gigantic installation in the middle of nowhere that looked like a cross between an oil rig and an outdoor swimming pool.
I had seen images of solar installations before, such as this one from the Australian Solar Institute, but never actually thought I would end up in one myself. The reality was far from what my eyes were showing me. As we drove from the airport to our hotel, I saw fields of solar panels stretching as far as the eye could see. We stayed in a beautiful villa as part of our program, and I was looking forward to exploring Mumbai and learning more about the Indian power industry.
The Rise of Solar Energy In India
The Indian government has been committed to reducing its dependence on fossil fuels and promoting renewable energy for some time now. In 2017, they launched a new brand, Clean India, that aims to inspire and enable a clean transition to a renewable energy future for the country. With the support of the Indian government and civil society, the renewable energy sector grew by 82% in 2017 compared to the previous year, making it one of the fastest-growing sectors in the country.
One of the main drivers of this growth is undoubtedly solar power. The Indian government has set a target of having 100 million solar-powered devices by 2022, and many countries, including India, have renewable energy targets that they hope to achieve by this year. Several Indian states, such as Rajasthan and Gujarat, have already achieved this benchmark, with both states having a solar panel density of 394 W/m² and 450 W/m² respectively.
Interestingly, a lot of this solar energy is being generated from sunnier states such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which have an average of 27.6 hours of sunshine each day. The northern states of India, which have less sunshine, are now taking note and generating more solar energy too. Last year, the solar energy sector employed over 150,000 people in India alone and supported over a million jobs in the country, as well as in the supply chain.
The Growth of Wind Energy In India
Wind energy had a similar trajectory in India to solar energy – it started small and gained momentum in 2017, with 64 new wind farms installed across the country.
However, wind energy only recently became a prominent source of power in India, with less than 10% of the country utilizing it. This is compared to the 2.5% of the United States that gets its power from wind farms. The reason behind this is complex but can largely be attributed to the high installation cost of a lot of wind turbines (an average of $100,000 per turbine) and the lack of government support in making it easier for businesses to implement.
Why Are Solar and Wind Energy Fads Right Now?
If you read the news, you’ll see that renewable energy is currently in the spotlight as the ‘wonder’ fuel that can power entire cities and villages, combat global warming, and reduce dependence on fossil fuels. However, solar and wind energy aren’t new technologies. They’ve been around for decades and are often considered part of the ‘green’ energy revolution. They’ve always been popular with environmentalists as they’re considered natural resources and don’t impact the environment as much as other fuels do.
The reason these technologies are in the news right now is because of the current ‘green’ political climate and the fact that people are aware of, and concerned about, climate change. In 2020, the world will be looking at ways to reduce their carbon footprint, and these two technologies represent the absolute best opportunity to do that. Not only is solar energy free and does wonders for the environment, it also generates electricity when the sun isn’t shining and doesn’t depend on fossil fuels or nuclear power to function. As a result, there is huge investment interest in these technologies across the world, and for good reason.
However, despite all this green PR, solar and wind energy aren’t perfect and have their own drawbacks. The cost of installing solar panels is astronomical and can run into the thousands of dollars per watt, while the cost of wind turbines can range from $15,000 to $125,000 per megawatt, all figures given in 2017. Although this may seem like a small investment compared to the cost of purchasing energy from fossil fuels, it can still be a tough sell for businesses and individuals. This is one of the reasons why, for now, solar and wind energy remain niche products in parts of the world.
The Changing Role Of Design In The Energy Mix
In my experience, one of the biggest barriers to implementing solar and wind energy is integrating them into the overall energy production process. This requires a lot of research and trial and error, as well as a significant financial commitment. Without proper planning and forethought, setting up a standalone solar farm or wind farm is likely to result in sub-par performance and a significant waste of resources.
Renewable energy systems also require a lot of maintenance and human intervention to keep them operating at peak performance, which means that power companies will need to be staffed up to handle these tasks. The process of incorporating solar and wind energy into existing power plants is known as ‘hybridization’ and can result in significantly higher CAPEX requirements.
Tough Industry To Enter
Due to the high initial investment required to get started, and the high ongoing maintenance costs associated with these technologies, solar and wind energy remain tough industries to be in. As a result, there aren’t too many players in the market, which creates a problem when it comes to purchasing energy capacity on a large scale.
To give you an idea of the size of this market, according to a recent report by GlobalData, the market size of the residential solar market was worth US$18.9 billion in 2020 and is expected to rise to $36.5 billion by 2025.
What About Dams?
Dams are often considered an environmentally friendly alternative to harnessing the power of falling water and are, therefore, a common part of many renewable energy systems. However, they have several drawbacks that make them a less-than-ideal choice in many situations. These include the large amount of land that they occupy and the fact that they require a large area to produce electricity—this makes them less suitable for areas where space is at a premium.
If you’re interested in generating your own power and fighting climate change, solar and wind energy remain the premier, and most affordable, options. Many businesses and individuals are now focused on making the switch and less concerned about energy costs. The fact that these technologies are here to stay is evidenced by the fact that many countries have set ambitious renewable energy targets and are working hard to achieve them.